Pundits and the public are turning against restrictions
It is hard to believe that little over a week ago, Boris Johnson’s decision not to impose any new Covid restrictions over Christmas created a media and political storm. Wes Streeting, the Shadow Health Secretary, accused Johnson of being “too weak to stand up to his own backbenchers, many of whom have no plan beyond ‘let the virus rip'”. A Guardian editorial blasted a “reckless” and “incompetent” government.
Whatever the reasons for Johnson’s choice — fear of rebellious MPs, opinion polls that show the public increasingly opposed to restrictions, confidence in the vaccination programme that has given nearly 30 million a booster, or the body of evidence that shows Omicron is likely milder than Delta — it seems that opinion has decisively shifted this week.
Many commentators have concluded that it was the correct choice. Pundits and scientists alike have started to show signs of optimism, with many now openly discussing the shortcomings of restrictions, and the need to resume a normal life. Even Wes Streeting, has changed his tune, admitting this week that “people will be relieved to see no new restrictions ahead of the new year”.
This change has been accompanied by a series of hopeful interviews from prominent academics, underlining the improved picture due to Omicron. This week, Sir John Bell, regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University and the government’s life sciences adviser, suggested that Omicron is “not the same disease we were seeing a year ago” and that “the horrific scenes that we saw a year ago of intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely, that is now history, in my view”.
Striking a similarly hopeful tone, Paul Hunter, a Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, described the need to eventually live with Covid, stating that, “This is a disease that’s not going away. Ultimately, we’re going to have to let people who are positive with Covid go about their normal lives as they would do with any other cold”.
Nor, it seems, is this renewed optimism confined to scientists. Piers Morgan, previously scathing of any attempts to avoid restrictions, has finally dispensed with his characteristic pessimism. On Monday, when discussing the latest Covid hospital figures, he tweeted, “But how many are in hospital specifically due to covid and how many tested positive when admitted for other health issues? This is now the crucial data to determine #Omicron impact”.
This is a fair point, and the picture is still mixed, with numbers of Covid positive patients increasing in hospitals, and discharges slowing down, perhaps due to Christmas. Nonetheless, the fact that Omicron is generally believed — by even the most alarmist commentators — to be mild enough that they are willing to reignite the “with Covid” not “of covid” debate, signifies a significant shift in attitudes.
Meanwhile prominent members of iSAGE, such as Dr Zubaida Haque, and medical influencers in favour of restrictions also seem to have sensed the tide is turning. Their last hope to cling on to public opinion has been to argue for a rebrand of the term “restrictions”, with Dr Haque arguing that “Emergency Covid public health measures are not restrictions, they’re protections.” and Dr Julia Patterson, of campaign group EveryDoctorUK adding that, “We need to stop calling public health measures ‘restrictions’… I think we need to frame them differently”. Predictably, these comments sparked a widespread backlash, with some describing such a suggestion as “desperate and disingenuous” and “silly at best, and sinister at worst”.
Whether Omicron is truly a blessing in disguise remains to be seen. What is apparent however, is a reluctance across the board to return to restrictions, and a renewed willingness to live with Covid. Is the political end of the pandemic finally in sight?